Noise in the National Parks

Global warming, clean water, and growing global population are some of today’s most pressing environmental issues. That list should be updated, it seems, as noise and light pollution have become major global concerns.

Both noise pollution and light pollution have actually been pressing issues for a while, though they haven’t received the attention of other environmental causes. That may change, however, with a set of new studies and reports on background noise and light from cars, airplanes, and other sources both in parks and around the country.

“The Park Service regards both the night sky environment and the natural sound environment as physical resources that must be protected under the [National Park Service] Organic Act of 1916,” says Kurt Fristrup, a senior scientist at the Park Service’s Division of Natural Sounds and Night Skies. The Organic Act explains that all resources must be left “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Increases in “this ubiquitous sensory pollution that is noise pollution” can have significant negative effects on the natural environment, says Cal Poly biologist Clinton Francis, whose work takes advantage of the fact that some natural gas wells employ “very noisy” pumping systems to study a variety of effects on species distribution, animal behavior, and community-level ecological processes. For example, the Western Scrub Jay distributes a “foundational” southwestern seed of the Piñon Pine tree group, but it appears as if “noise pollution is causing a large-scale decline in Piñon Pine seed dispersal.”

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